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UK needs to better realise value from recovered plastics

Consumers say the material they most want to recycle is plastic packaging. Current data suggests that around 470,000 tonnes of plastic packaging is recovered per year, of which about one quarter is recovered from households. The amount of plastic recovered has grown by around 40% during the past three years, driven by an increase in local authority plastics collection schemes. Nevertheless, at 22%, the recovery rate is lower than that for materials such as paper and glass, reflecting the relative difficulty of collecting, sorting and processing plastics due to their low density, the high likelihood of contamination and the wide range of polymer types. This suggests that there may be scope to considerably improve recycling rates. Indeed, to meet the current target of a 24% recycling rate by 2010 will require a further 70,000 tonnes of material to be recovered per year. The most common route for recycling recovered plastic is for it to be used in a different application from the source product. This is known as open-loop recycling, although closed-loop technologies − such as bottle-to-bottle recycling − are gradually being developed. Of the packaging plastics recovered in the UK, about one- third is reprocessed here, with the rest exported for recycling overseas. Most of the materials reprocessed in the UK are films and some rigid HDPE, although significant expansions in bottle reprocessing capacity are planned. The UK does not have any polyester fibre manufacturing capacity, so PET bottles destined for the fibre industry have to be exported. Lack of domestic capacity also accounts for the majority of mixed plastics being exported for reprocessing. Role of exports Exports of recovered packaging plastics have almost tripled in the past three years, and this trend coincides with an apparent fall in the amount of plastic being re--processed in the UK. Between 2000 and 2006, the UKs exports of recovered plastics increased from 50,000 tonnes to 450,000 tonnes, of which 80 to 90% is destined for China. But dependence on export markets for recovered plastics is not without risk. Shipping rates have increased dramatically over 2007 due to a combination of higher fuel prices and higher tariffs. A legislative misunderstanding saw the export of recovered plastics to China being (mistakenly) prohibited when the EU Waste Shipment Regulations were introduced in July, resulting in a significant albeit temporary drop in exports and market confusion. In recent months, China is reported to have tightened its import controls on recovered materials. While this does not appear to have had a significant impact so far, a severe clamp-down could seriously affect the UK market for recovered plastics. UK material has a reputation for being of lower quality than recovered plastics from other countries, so there is a real risk that if regulations on waste shipments are tightened or better enforced, then demand for UK material might fall. A key challenge facing the UK recovered plastics sector is therefore how to maintain quality as a larger proportion of the material recovered from post-consumer, rather than post-industrial, sources. The continuing trend towards and demand from households for mixed plastics collections is a big challenge but also represents a major opportunity to increase UK plastics recycling rates. Particular challenges include the proliferation of polymer types, the high degree of contamination and the current lack of robust end markets for these materials. Domestic plastics reprocessing seems to have declined in recent years, perhaps because of increasing global competition. Events in international markets in 2007 have underlined the potential risks in being dependent on one market for the UKs recovered material. Widening the markets for UK recovered plastics for example through applications such as closed-loop bottle recycling could help mitigate these risks. These challenges are an area of ongoing focus for WRAP, which continues to facilitate debates on best practice and encourage new end markets. Activities include the development of closed-loop recycling technology that allows plastic milk bottles to be recycled back into milk bottles, a local authority bottle promotion campaign and a conference to explore the issues surrounding mixed plastics recycling in the UK. This article is based on Realising the value of recovered plastics, the latest market situation report from WRAP. The entire report is available to download free from www.wrap.org.uk/marketreports

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